Author Kate Christensen shares her “lifelong obsession” with food
About Harvest interviews author Kate Christensen about her latest book, titled Blue Plate Special. It is an autobiography published by Random House.
AH: What can you tell me about how you came about deciding on the book title, Blue Plate Special and if it came to you as you were writing it, or later?
KC:That was always going to be the title, even years before I started writing the book, back when I was thinking about it, planning to write it someday when I was ready. It refers to the family dinners my mother made for my little sisters and me in the 1970s, in Tempe, Arizona: meat loaf with mashed potatoes and peas, or flounder filets with rice and green beans, or fried chicken with baked beans and creamed corn, or macaroni and cheese with salad and garlic bread… we’d tell her how good it was and ask for seconds, and she’d say, “Aw, it’s nothing but a blue plate special,” referring to the diner meals she saved up for when she was a starving cello student at Juilliard, living on fried farina most of the time in her tiny rented room in New York City. Because of those dinners my mother made when I was little, “blue plate special” is one of the coziest, loveliest phrases I know, and I wanted the title of this book to convey the sense of comfort and joy that food has always given me.
AH:The narration of your adventuresome and compelling life, stretching from very childhood to present day is beautifully honest, if dark. When you set out to write this Memoir, from the very onset did you know your reflections on your life experiences would be told through food? Was it food that gave you the courage to publish your memoir?
KC:Originally, my idea was to write a food book; the memoir part of it was a natural offshoot of that, but food has been a lifelong obsession for me. Food writing – by M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Laurie Colwin, Nicolas Freeling – has provided solace to me in times of stress and anxiety, and I was inspired by them to write the kind of book that might give that same feeling to future insomniacs, people struggling the way I once struggled. I wanted to give those particular readers the sense that they’re not alone. The intersection of food, language, and life is the most comforting thing in the world to me.
AH:How much fun it was (for me personally) to trip down memory lane with you with respect to the foods of the 1960’s and 1970’s such as Space Food Sticks and Pop Rocks. If they are anything like me, I believe you’re readers will be moved into remembering their own histories along the way. Have your readers shared any of their own food memories with you since publication of Blue Plate Special?
KC:Absolutely, and it’s been so much fun to hear other people’s food memories, especially from the 1970s. The other night at a reading, I found myself in a conversation with a woman about my same age. We were talking about chicken pot pies – we both loved them, and we were bemoaning the fact that they’ve gone upscale and gourmet in this century. So much of the magic for us was the fact that they came from the supermarket freezer case and had mass-produced crusts and gummy gravy and came in little individual aluminum pie pans. They were insanely delicious back when they were bad for you and full of chemicals. I loved sharing my nostalgia for those with her.
AH:Humans communicate so much through the raising, harvesting and preparing of food. You use food and recipes as a means to respond to and mitigate your pain throughout the book. Will you talk about how you chose each recipe in your book?
KC:The recipes were instinctive. Each time I came to the end of a chapter, I added them rapidly and without forethought, as a coda, a part of the story. I intended each one to reverberate back through the chapter, emotionally and thematically, like a little bell. I didn’t write them as recipes per se, I wrote them more as prose to be seen as part of the narrative. But people have been telling me that they’re making some of them, and apparently they work! They’re all things I’ve made many times, but I was in no way trying to present them as exciting recipes or original food, but as part of the story.
AH:You expertly cope with the pain and sadness of many aspects of your life with humor and food. Again, have your readers shared any of their own “pain mitigating” or “humor restoring” recipes with you since Blue Plate Special was published and if so can you share one of theirs or yours with us?
KC:A caller named Katie on a radio show the other day mentioned her Danish grandmother’s rhubarb pudding – it was bright red, and she spread white cream on top in a design, and as a very small child, Katie found this thrilling and impressive. It was so much better than her mother’s oatmeal, which Katie always dumped into the coal register behind her when her parents weren’t looking; years later, her father cleaned it out and found mounds of dried oatmeal. Then, as an adult, of course, Katie learned to love oatmeal.